Eagle Mountain, Tennessee
He saw her through the trees, but it was the dull thudding clang that led him on. A scratching followed by a grunt, and then a metallic clang of metal against rock. He caught a glimpse of red through the dull grey trees, standing like giant fence posts against the gloomy Tennessee sky. The contrast of color only served to increase his curiosity. Anything strange or out of the ordinary could be a clue, so he followed the sounds and kept watching for a repeat of the flash of red. The flash became a dot, bobbing and weaving in the dull grey winter forest before he could make out the words. When he heard them, he grew even more confused, so he approached quietly until he could be sure of what he was hearing.
Finally, he stepped out of the trees into the small clearing, saying, “What are you doing? Here! Quit! Quit! Give me that!”
“I’ve got to! I’ve got to, and I can’t! I can’t! I can’t, and I have to! I have to!” Her tone was strained, almost plaintive.
“Can’t what? What can’t you do?”
“I said give me that, gosh darn it! Quit! You’re gonna break it. What’s the matter with you? Shovels cost good money!”
“I can’t! I have to!”
“You said that already! Talk sense! Wait, here, look at me! Why are you so red? It’s not hot out here.” He pulled the leather glove off his right hand. While she continued to try to swing the shovel he had taken from her, he placed his calloused hand on her face and the side of her neck. Jerking his hand back, he stared at her. “You’re burning up. Good Lord!” He backed up and looked around, sizing up the situation in a glance.
She came at him, reaching for the shovel that he pulled away from her grasping hands. “Seed. I’ve got to plant. I have it. Seed. I’ve got to plant it. I’ve got to break up the ground and plant the seed.” Even her voice sounded shaky, weak, confused.
“Where’s your folks? You’re out here alone, aren’t you? Dang it! I don’t have time for this. First the rain, then the early frost, and now a sick girl! What next?” He looked around again, hoping to make some human form or evidence of life appear in the dismal, grey surroundings. Trees stripped bare of leaves and a shell of a log cabin that had long ago lost most of the filling in the chinks between logs were all the reward his searching gaze met.
“Seed. I have it.”
“Okay, okay, seed you’ve got. Sense is what you haven’t got. Come on.” He started off toward his horse, expecting her to follow.
She knelt on the ground. “Seed. No shovel. I can’t. I can’t. I have to.”
When she started to paw at the frozen, stony earth with her hands, the heart he thought was as tough as the sole of his boot broke in two. “Aw, heck! Get up, won’t you? Don’t do that!” He went back to her and knelt down and caught her wrist, pulling her up.
She pulled against him. “Seed! I have to!” Clawing at him with her free hand, she jerked feebly and twisted as she fell.
He watched her twitch in the light dusting of snow that covered last year’s leaf fall and new loam. He wondered idly what seed she had and if it would have grown in this dense growth of trees. There was something of a clearing here, giving testimony to some poor soul’s hard work clearing and cutting. Long years in the ground by now, whoever he was. Some sodbuster, probably got himself shot by some Yankee in the war.
Reaching for his sidearm, he drew and fired two signal rounds into the ground far away from where the girl lay. He knew Zeke would hear, so he didn’t wait for an answer. Turning toward the house, he trudged over the uneven terrain, glancing back occasionally before entering. A few minutes later, a single revolver shot told him Zeke was on his way. That signal brought Ben back out of the old dwelling carrying a tattered blanket and a small gunnysack.
“This is all she has, I guess,” he declared, indicating the young woman as she lay inert.
“And seein’ as you got it and we ain’t desperate enough to steal it, I reckon you aim to take her with the sack?”
“I reckon so, Zeke.”
“Just what we need, an ailin’ girl. That’ll slow us up right nice, as if we was getting’ too hot on this trail, Ben. Jumpin’ Jehosephat!”
“I know it, but what are we supposed to do? Leave her here to die? She won’t make it another day. Not sure how she made it this long.”
“And how long you figure she’s been here?” Zeke bent his long, lanky frame over to examine her.
“Well, what’s her name?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Ben started to wrap her up in the blanket, but the shreds kept flopping open. “Aw, heck. I’ll have to use my bedroll.”
“Don’t do that,” Zeke commanded him. “What she got might be catchy. Be a shame to have to burn that there bedroll. Here, use my rain slicker.” Zeke untied it from behind his saddle and handed it to Ben.
“Could be, but I don’t think so. I don’t see any pox on her or anything like that. No cough. She’s just worn out.”
“And half-starved, maybe.”
“If she’s been out here with no man to bring in any game and not a bean or a bit of flour that I can find, she must be in a bad way. She does have some seed, or so she said.”
As if the mention of the magic word had suddenly roused her, the young woman spoke again. “Seed. Pumpkins, I have to.” She flung her arm out as if to grasp an imaginary shovel. “I have to! I can’t! I can’t!”
“She wants her shovel,” Ben informed Zeke.
Zeke cocked an eye at Ben. “She’s fixin’ to plant pumpkins? In this rock?” He took the girl from Ben’s arms so Ben could mount his horse.
Ben reached down to pull the girl up in front of him. The big dun gelding he rode would make nothing of the extra weight. “That’s how I found her. I heard the shovel rasping on the stone.”
Zeke’s eyebrows shot up under the shaggy bangs that helped shield his face from the cold. “She’s got grit. Gotta hand her that. Reckon what she’s doing all the way out here by her lonesome?”
“I was just speculating on that while I was waiting for you to answer my signal. Figure could be this was her parents’ place, but that’s about as far as I got.”
“I don’t see no fresh graves,” Zeke noted as they headed back the way they had come.
“But this cabin didn’t build itself. And this girl had to have had a family at some point. If there was no connection, what brought her here?”
“If there is a connection, it could be an old one. Coulda been years ago. Maybe it was the war that took him, and his widow abandoned the place when she got the news. Lots of folks like that hereabouts, and lots of places like this ‘un standing empty even seven years on.”
Ben shook his head as they rode along, back down the trail, with the leaves swishing under the horses’ hooves and the crows cawing to each other. “Still, that doesn’t explain why she shows up here, now, all these years after the war.”
“As for that, maybe we ain’t got no more sense than that girl. What’re we doin’ traipsin’ around these here woods, tryin’ to pick up a trail that’s what? Eight, ten years cold? That’s the last time he was spotted hereabouts. I may be good, but ain’t nobody that good.”
“Maybe she’s from around here and can help us. Maybe she knows something,” Ben said.
“Huh.” Zeke’s tone let Ben know what his friend thought of that idea.
“Gotta take this girl, whether or no. I couldn’t sleep at night, if we left her there.”
“Your mama’s teachin’ is kinda hard to leave behind you, ain’t it?”
Ben laughed. “You should know since we were raised together.”
“Yeah, but only after I was twelve. I was half growed by the time she got a holt of me. You and your brothers got a load to tote, all them rules and notions and such.”
“You’re as much of a brother to me as Adam or Cal or any of ‘em, Zeke. Closer than some, and everybody knows it.”
The girl stirred in Ben’s arms, prompting Zeke to comment, “We’d best get her home. Your ma wouldn’t take kindly to us lettin’ her get any sicker than she already is.”
“You think we can make it back to the plateau by nightfall?”
“They’s a moon bright enough to ride by tonight. I know you was wantin’ to make one more pass through the valley before we headed back, but I’d just as soon call it quits.”
“You don’t believe we’ll find Radnor, do you?” Ben’s challenge held no heat, but he was serious.
“Findin’ one man after seven years? Ben, if he had a hankerin’ to be found, we woulda done found him by now. Captain Radnor wasn’t no fool.”
“Then why do you stick with me? Why waste your time?”
“My time to waste, ain’t it? What else have I got to do?” Zeke grinned one of his rare grins. “Besides, your ma tol’ me to. She figures you’s by way of needin’ a nursemaid. Don’t I look like the type?”
Ben rested the tied reins on the pummel of his saddle, plucked a brown prickly gumball off a handy red gum tree, and threw it at Zeke. “If you’re the type, why aren’t you totin’ the girl?” She rested easily in the crook of his other arm, lost in the long slicker.
The path narrowed so that Zeke’s horse pulled ahead, and they rode single file. “You’re bigger than me. She’s more comfortable restin’ her little self on you. ‘Sides, finder’s keepers.”
“I ain’t keepin’ this!” Ben declared.
“Why not?” Zeke seemed to be enjoying Ben’s annoyance.
“Cause she’s too young, and like you said, too little. She’s barely an armful and sickly to boot.”
“She’s comely enough. Got plenty of spunk. A girl’d need that to marry into your family. And I’ll bet she ain’t that young. Folks look younger when they’s asleep.”
“Yeah, well you look uglier when you’re jawin’. Why don’t you hush up?”
“Okay,” Zeke chuckled. “No need to get all riled up. I was just speculatin’.”
“Well, speculate on somethin’ else, can’t you? Try speculating on where we can look for Radnor next.”
“That’s your lookout, not mine. He wasn’t my captain for nearly as long as he was yours.”
They rode for a long while in silence. The sky remained grey and cheerless, but the landscape flattened out, and the trail became wider. At times they rode through rolling hills and pastureland interspersed with clumps of trees like buttons sewn on a crazy quilt for decoration.
As the dim sunlight faded into an even duller, colorless dusk, they struck a road, and the going was both faster and easier. Ben resisted the temptation to relax, knowing that this was the time of day favored by marauding bandits—often displaced soldiers still fighting long ago abandoned battles.
Around the bend, Ben heard the unmistakable sound of two brothers fighting, a not uncommon occurrence. “Want odds on who that is brawling?”
“No, thanks. Sounds like Dan and maybe Yancey. I’m about skint as it is, and not much prospect of any greenbacks in my future with you traipsin’ around the countryside like this.”
“I never said you had to come. Go get a job. I hear O’Hara is looking to hire.”
Zeke gave a bark of laughter. “I can see myself with an apron and a broom, sweepin’ out his shop.”
“He’d have to put you to work in the storeroom. With your long hair and bushy beard, you’d scare off the customers. And talk about scaring folks, you’d best ride ahead and let Ma know we’re coming and not to be afraid of this here girl.”
“Good idea. She sees that gal wrapped up in that blanket, she’s liable to think you’re bringing home Typhoid Mary or some such. She might not let you in a hundred yards of the house.”
“The way I smell, she might not let me in anyway. Go on and tell her. It’ll give her time to get a bed ready.”
The moonlight outlined Zeke’s back in a silvery glow as Ben watched him pull ahead. Ben kept his horse to a brisk walk, even though the gelding would normally have picked up his pace when he smelled the barn and home. Nearing the house, Ben took in the details of his surroundings as if trying to detect an ambush. Years of military experience could not be completely erased.
By the time Ben reined to a stop at the front porch steps, his mother and several of his brothers were waiting to help him. Zeke received the stirring girl from Ben’s stiff arms. “Here, I’ll take her.”
Amanda Tate peered at the small body as it shifted from her son to her son’s best friend. “Take her on upstairs, Zeke. The south bedroom is ready. Are you sure it’s not the pox?”
Ben answered in a calm but exhausted voice. “I’m sure, Ma, or I wouldn’t have brought her home.”
“Well, you couldn’t have left her out there by herself either,” Amanda scolded him. “Of course you should have brought her home. And why aren’t you wearing your scarf? You’ll catch your death of cold! Get inside. Ephraim, stoke the stove to heat up the coffee.”
“Already done, Ma,” Efe replied in a petulant voice that reminded Ben what it was like to be just eighteen. In some families, Ben thought to himself, he would be considered a man, but with so many other men around, Ma tends to treat him like a child. We all could do with a reminder that in order to act like a man, Efe needs to be treated like a man.
Efe’s voice interrupted his reverie. “Where’d you find her, Ben?”
“On the north side of the mountain. Up near the pass there’s a place that borders Radnor’s old farm.”
They made their way to the kitchen, where Amanda left them, saying, “I’ll go see to her. I don’t suppose you know her name.”
“No, idea,” Ben answered.
“Just my luck. The first girl he brings home and he doesn’t even know her name.” Amanda shook her head sadly as she headed up the stairs toward the second story.
“I didn’t think Radnor had any near neighbors,” Efe said.
“He doesn’t on the south side. That bluff is the southern boundary of his land, but on the northeast, there was a man had a place to run a few goats and try to raise potatoes. Didn’t make a go of it and just left it, I reckon. We heard about it and went to look around, see what we could see. There was a second house on the land. The girl kind of led us to it, but it was deserted. No sign Radnor had ever been there.”
Amanda bustled back into the kitchen. “Pump me some more water, Ephraim. What she needs is a three day soak to get all the grime off her, but a wipe down will have to do for now.”
“Did she say anything?” Ben wanted to know.
“Not much. Just keeps saying she has to and talking about seed,” Amanda replied.
Ben shook his head. “Stubborn little cuss.”
* * *
“No, girl, you can’t get up just yet. You’ve been asleep for three days, and your fever just broke last night. You need your rest.” Amanda held the girl down by the shoulders as she called, “Ben! Zeke! Somebody, come help me with this girl.”
Ben burst through the door. “What’s wrong, Ma?”
“Easy, there. She’s just trying to get out of the bed, son.”
The girl in the bed reached out a hand to push Amanda away. “I can’t stay. I can’t! I have to go back. We’ll lose the house and the land and everything. I have to go back.”
“Hold on there, little lady.” Ben replaced his mother at the side of the sickbed and easily pushed the girl back down. With a hand on each shoulder, he was shocked at how strong of a resistance she was able to mount. Sheer guts and determination, he mused. “Quit struggling, will you? We’re only trying to help.”
“And I can’t pay, so please, don’t let me run up any more of a bill that I’ll have to foot later,” she plead. “What I’ve got isn’t for sale.”
Amanda directed a quick glance at Ben and then turned a sharp look at the patient. “Nobody said anything about payment or selling. I’m a good Christian woman and run a decent house here. If you were from around here, you’d know that. Now, I need to know who you are and who your people are so I can get word to them. They must be worried sick about you.”
“Nobody’s worried about me, but I thank you for thinking of it. My name is Maggie Radnor, and my aunt knows where I am. Or at least, she knew where I was. I was on my family’s old place last I remember. How did I get here?”
“My son Ben found you ailing and brought you here to me. Once you’re better you can go back, if you can tell us how you intend to live up there. Where is your husband?”
“No husband or father either. Pa was taken in the war,” Maggie answered. “It’s his younger sister I was telling you about. She sent me there.”
“So what were you doing up there by yourself?” Ben demanded.
Amanda batted at Ben’s arm. “This isn’t the time. Let the girl rest. You, lie back and rest until I can heat you up some broth. There’ll be time to discuss your future when you’re stronger.”
“My future is clear enough,” Maggie croaked. “Uncle Buck gave my brother that place, but he’s too young to work it yet. Now Uncle Milton is trying to have Uncle Buck declared dead because he’s never come back from the war, and it’s been seven years. That’s bad enough, but if Uncle Buck is declared dead, Uncle Milton is going to try to nullify the gift. He can do it, too, but only if the land isn’t worked. I’ve got to show there is something planted on the land before the case gets through the courts. All I have to do get something living up there. Anything at all. Please!”
Ben shook his head and laughed disbelievingly to his mother. “Do you hear that? You’ve got to admit, she’s got pluck! Sense, no, but plenty of pluck.”
“Sense? I’ve got sense! Sense enough to do whatever it takes to keep what belongs to me and mine.” This statement seemed to take all the energy Maggie had left. She fell back on the pillows, so Ben released his grip.
Amanda smoothed Maggie’s hair back off her forehead. “Nothing would grow in this ground, girl. It’s frozen solid.”
“But it’s got to grow. Can’t lose that land. He can’t have it.” Maggie was fading into sleep but fighting hard to stay awake.
“Easy now. We’ll think of something.”
Maggie struggled to raise herself again. “No! No. I have to. I can’t. I have to. Seeds. Seeds. I have them.”
“She won’t rest until we ease her mind, Ben. What can we do?”
“We don’t know how long we’ve got, if it’s the courts that decide. No telling how long or short a case will take. So many men missing from the war, and their families need to move on, so the courts are all backed up.”
Amanda nodded. “So many old families lost everything except the land itself, so that’s what they’ve got to sell in order to keep body and soul together. I can’t blame them.”
Ben kept his voice low as he spoke with his mother. “But if her uncle is Captain Radnor, and he meant this land to go to her brother, his wishes ought to be honored. And we know he was alive as of three months ago. Our evidence may be enough to keep him from being declared dead. If he’s not dead, the gift couldn’t be nullified without his say so.”
“Still, I don’t like taking that kind of chance. One letter from an old army buddy saying he needs to talk to Captain Radnor might not be taken for proof.”
“You’re right, Ma.” Ben thought hard another minute, and then gave a crafty smile. “I know. The land just has to be worked, right? Something has to grow. Well, a goat grows. Wouldn’t take any time to build a pen and run some goats up there. Cal and his new wife might enjoy a little privacy. They’ve got goats they could move up there and tend.” Ben gave his mother a knowing smirk.
Amanda batted her son across the head, but not in anger. “Goats! I do declare! Well, I have heard worse ideas.” She gave an exasperated chuckle. “Cal’s wife would be easier to take from five miles away, that’s for sure. She’d more than likely say the same thing about me.”
“I’ll get on it.” Turning to Maggie, Ben cocked an eyebrow. “See? Problem solved. Pumpkins aren’t going to grow in this cold, but goats will. Cal will trade his work for rent on the house. It does need a good bit of fixing, but Cal’s a dab hand at most things.”
Maggie mumbled a response, but when she settled into an easier sleep, Ben gave a satisfied nod.
* * *
Several days later, Maggie woke and saw Ben’s serious face gazing down at her from the doorway, as she had most mornings since she first awoke. Sitting himself in the chair next to the bed, he examined the shirt she had placed in the basket beside the bed. “Nothing new to report, so don’t ask.”
“That’s not what I was going to say,” she retorted primly. “I was going to tell you to tell your mother to bring me my clothes so I can get up and help her around the house.”
“Knowing my ma, you’re telling me to tell her to do anything? And I thought you were getting better. You must be raving with fever again.” He reached over as if to feel her forehead, but she batted his hand away.
“I’m not joking. I’m ready to get up, but I can’t find my clothes.”
“And that’s why you can’t find them. Because Ma thinks you’re not ready. And what Ma says goes, at least when it comes to sick folks. Besides, you don’t need to get out of the bed to be useful.”
She gasped at this indelicate reference, expecting him to stammer an apology, but he just looked at her steadily and continued. “Your needlework is fine, and Ma has more than her share. You’ve seen the size of my family. There’s always shirts and pants to be made or mended.”
“And where are the womenfolk? Your mother should have more help around here.”
“When my brothers get married, for some reason, their wives tend to want to move off a ways.” He gave her an ironic shrug. “Can’t figure why that would be, can you?”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “Well, now, maybe that does make sense after all. But you’re still here. Where’s your wife?”
Ben shrugged again. “Haven’t got one. Don’t want one. Too busy with this farm and all the going’s and coming’s around here. And this search for your uncle.”
“I still don’t see why you are so set on finding him. I mean, I admire your determination, but I don’t see how you can spare the time.”
“It’s just something I have to do. He saved my life more than once during the war. Gave up his place in that first prisoner exchange so I could get out of that camp.”
“You never were very specific as to how he managed that.”
“This isn’t something a girl needs to hear.”
Maggie took the shirt from him and began to stitch in careful, straight lines. “My Uncle Milton says he was a brawler, constantly in trouble, always paying bribes to get his way. I was just wondering if that was true. I mean, how was he able to choose?”
“Well, he didn’t really choose, but Captain Radnor was no brawler, at least, not like that. He just saw he was on the list and I wasn’t. That very afternoon, he slugged a guard and got put in the cage, knowing they never exchanged prisoners who were in for special punishment. I was let out instead. He escaped soon after, and I lost track of him. There was a lot of war left.” Ben stood to go.
Maggie looked up at him. “If you do find him, I’ll find a way to repay your service to my family. You know I will.”
“I know you’re stubborn enough to try. And I suspect you’re stubborn enough to get up before my ma thinks you’re ready. Better think twice about that, little miss.”
He left her wondering if he knew how much his visits meant to her.